Friday, June 16th, 2023

‘Tollite iugum’: a Sermon for the Feast of the Sacred Heart

Take My yoke upon yourselves & learn by Me . . .  & you shall find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11).

But will we find rest? It’s a fair question. If we shall find rest, in what sense? The discourse completes itself with one more verse, doubling down the point: “My yoke is sweet, and my burden light.” Is it? Is it easy and sweet to suffer criticism for doing what is right and pure? Easy and sweet to keep faithful to one’s marriage vows amid difficulty? Easy and sweet to struggle against sin? Easy and sweet to respect and obey bad or mediocre clergy? Easy and sweet to be generous and chaste and prudent? Easy and sweet to keep our hope and charity in this culture? On and on we could go. 

In fact, the offertory does go on for us: “My Heart expected reproach and misery . . . [I looked] for one that would comfort me, and found none.” Thus Psalm 68. Or think of the argument of Psalm 72: The unfaithful seem to have it so good; they never think of death, they enjoy health of body, prosperity in their undertakings, respect among one another; no hardships afflict them;—whereas for the faithful, there is nothing but struggle and suffering and labor.    

“Take my yoke . . . you shall find rest . . . my burden is light.” A superficial glance would call this absurd. Obviously Christ is not misleading us. But it is equally obvious that being a Catholic is difficult, not always sweet and light. How do we resolve the paradox?   

Because sin is much, much heavier; life away from Christ is supremely more bitter.  We know it. Despite appearances, the life is sin is, in so many ways, its own punishment.—And that is not a platitude that Christians use to comfort themselves and justify their missing out on the world’s pleasures. We know, first, by experience, what a hard master sin is. We know pangs of conscience and the sense of sickness that comes from having sinned; or even from wondering about whether we’ve sinned. We have felt the ill effects of our sins. No, we know what it means to be estranged from this Heart, and we beg the grace nevermore to go that way. 

Second, we know the hardness of sin by observation. No one becomes addicted to anything, for instance, because human life is spontaneously happy and simple. A deep sense of self-hatred invariably corresponds with a life of habitual sexual sin. Slavery to money and material goods often crushes its victims under debt and poverty; at very least it makes them chronically anxious. Think for yourselves about the most serious moral evils of our times and ask yourself whether those who do them are peaceful, joyful, content, and kind.   

As it turns out, then, Our Lord is not being absurd. The Catholic life is yoke at times difficult to bear; but sin is far more burdensome. Therefore, His yoke is easy and light. We are the absurd ones when we keep at a distance from Christ’s Heart. Which is why we make reparation today. Not on account of any sense of self-righteousness, heaven knows. But as if to say, “Lord, pardon my sins; let me never be so foolish as to avoid You. And have mercy on those who do not drawn near to You. Insofar as my prayer means anything, take me as some kind of offering.” 

Or it is as St Peter said to Christ, after the crowds began to leave Him because of the hardness of His teaching. They did not grasp the sweetness and lightness of His yoke. “Will you also go away?” (We ought to ask ourselves in the mirror each morning!) No, with Your grace, we will stay. Ad quem ibimus? To Whom, indeed, shall we go?       

Art Credit: Julien Dupré, The Gleaners, oil on canvas, 1880.

Homilies & Sermons